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How Ryan Anderson has helped unlock the Rockets' defensive potential

Ryno’s never been known for defense, but he’s worked hard to change that this season.

NBA: Houston Rockets at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Anderson had his fair share of struggles on the defensive end over his career. Despite his elite three-point shooting range and accuracy, his ability to produce points in bunches when hot, and positive effect on a team’s spacing, the one major weak point in his game has always been defense.

He’s actually a better rebounder than people give him credit for, especially considering the amount of time he spends at the perimeter — this was especially true earlier in his career — but that defense, man. There were times, particularly in the postseason, that if Ryno wasn’t hitting his shot, he was having real difficulty contributing in other areas.

But as the Rockets came into the year with two new forwards and a renewed focus on a defensive approach, they’ve started off a red-hot 9-3. During this early-season run, a pretty unexpected thing happened: Anderson is suddenly holding his own on defense.

There was a noted tweet going around the other day, and it was enlightening to say the least. Ryno has looked better defensively to the eye test this year, but now we’re actually seeing bona fide proof.

Teams are obviously targeting Anderson, and it’s understandable. His past reputation as a defensive black hole is as real as his career -2.1 defensive plus-minus. And his defensive plus-minus this season, while serving as his best mark in five years, is still just a -1.5.

But on those iso plays, he’s been practically immovable. And against some pretty dang good opposition as well. A week ago against the Knicks, he helped hold Kristaps Porzingis to just 7-18 from the field, which was a key component of the Rockets’ blowout win at Madison Square Garden.

His positive effect on iso plays has translated into his best total defensive rating since 2012, and he’s actually cracked the top 100 players in defensive win-shares, tied with Paul Milsap, Shaun Livingston, and Brook Lopez. And of course, these aren’t elite numbers, but they’re far better than what we’ve come to expect from Anderson.

His defensive rebounding is also up. He’s currently averaging the most defensive rebounds per game of his career, and his defensive rebounding percentage is at it’s highest level for Ryno since 2011. And even on the boards he’s not grabbing, he’s having a positive influence on team defense with effective box outs.

He’s also part of the best five-man lineup on the Rockets, teaming up with fellow starters James Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela for a +19.5 net rating. Take Harden out, and the four remaining starters are Houston’s best four-man at +18.1. Remove Capela, a stud this season like Harden, and Anderson is still part of the best Houston three-man lineup along with Gordon and Ariza at +17.2.

All that is happening with Anderson averaging his fewest points per game since 2011, so he’s certainly impacting the team on the defensive side.

A big part of that improvement Anderson owes to offseason conditioning. According to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen, Anderson lost 12 pounds in the offseason, and the new frame has allowed him to play faster and more nimble so far this year, particularly on defense.

You can also credit the renewed focus on defense for the Rockets cumulatively as a franchise. They finished 18 in defensive rating last season, and with the offense in good hands coming into this year with James Harden and Chris Paul, head coach Mike D’Antoni made it a goal for the team to finish in the top 10 in defense this season as well. As of this writing, the team was sitting at 12, just knocking on the door of the top 10 teams.

Adding some additional personnel has helped the defensive attitude as well. The energy and effort of newcomers P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute is often infectious, and having those two guys around, who are often willing to do as much dirty work as it takes to get the job done, has helped positively influence the already unselfish nature of this year’s team.

Defense, more than any other part of basketball, is about attitude, it’s about belief, and it’s about teamwork. Sure, there are physical limitations in the athletic department when it comes to defending for Anderson, but this Rockets team is growing past the automatic label of offensive juggernaut, and Ryno has been a huge part of that so far this season. They may not get stops all the time, but they’ve been able to buckle down and get the stops that they need.

You combine this renewed desire on the defensive end, some new faces who add perfectly to the rugged attitude the Rockets are trying to cultivate, and throw in there a former defensive weak link in Anderson who’s both bought in to the culture and has made real, quantifiable physical changes to himself in an effort to improve on that end of the court, and you have a Rockets team that, with just a little bit more work and improvement, can soon be an elite offensive and defensive squad.

When you have that, you’re one step closer to that ever-elusive championship trophy.